Key witness takes stand in case of 5 NJ teens

AP News
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Posted: Nov 16, 2011 6:17 PM
Key witness takes stand in case of 5 NJ teens

The key prosecution witness at the trial of a New Jersey man charged with murdering five teenagers more than 30 years ago described for jurors Wednesday how the man herded the teens into a closet in a vacant house, nailed the door shut and poured gasoline around the edges.

Philander Hampton said his cousin, Lee Evans, then demanded a match from Hampton, who testified that he fled before the house was set ablaze. Hampton testified that he wondered why Evans, from whom some of the teens had allegedly stolen marijuana, started pouring gasoline around the perimeter.

"I asked him was he really going do it?" Hampton said. "I didn't want to kill nobody."

The teens' bodies were never found. Police initially classified it as a missing persons case and never connected it to the fire. The case went cold for more than 30 years, until a 2008 confession by Hampton to police helped revive it.

Hampton pleaded guilty to five counts of felony murder, but under 1978 sentencing guidelines applied to the case and a deal with prosecutors to testify against Evans, he's only required to serve 20 percent of the sentence before being eligible for parole. Hampton has been jailed since his March 2010 arrest, making him eligible for release in a matter of months.

Evans has pleaded not guilty to five counts of felony murder and five counts of murder in the deaths of 17-year-olds Melvin Pittman and Ernest Taylor and 16-year-olds Alvin Turner, Randy Johnson and Michael McDowell. Evans, a 58-year-old Irvington resident, is representing himself but has increasingly allowed a criminal defense lawyer named Bukie Adetula, acting as a public defender, to conduct court proceedings.

Adetula grilled Hampton under cross-examination Wednesday about his criminal record and a previous drug habit, questioning why he blindly did whatever Evans asked of him.

"Why didn't you say `no' to all the horrible things Mr. Evans asked you to do?" Adetula asked.

"I didn't think he was going to do it," Hampton replied.

Hampton testified that after the house was set ablaze, he never spoke of the incident with Evans, and continued working with him on local handyman jobs.

The prosecution is relying heavily on Hampton's testimony. The 54-year-old Jersey City resident, who said he had a 10th-grade education, gave single-word answers to most questions and seemed confused by the wording of several questions, asking why he had to answer them. He is the only other person, besides Evans, who allegedly knew what happened to the teens. The fire destroyed all physical evidence.

Family members of the missing teenagers packed the gallery for a second day of Hampton's testimony in State Superior Court in Newark. Evans also had several family members and supporters in the courtroom.

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